Every Dog Has His Day.
The 2015 Nathan's Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest.
On July 4, 2007, at the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, Joey Chestnut ate 66 hot dogs to Takeru Kobayashi’s 63.
It was a historic feat: no one had ever out-eaten 6-time champion Kobayashi in hot dogs and some speculated that no one ever would. That day, Joey Chestnut did the impossible. He out-ate the man who couldn’t be out-eaten. He brought the victory back to America.
I watched this all go down that morning on the TV set in my parents’ living room, wishing I was there, in person, to witness that historic event. Most people may think of fireworks or parades when they think of the Fourth of July, but that contest was the epitome of the holiday for me. It had become a yearly tradition ever since the first broadcast, to watch the Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating contest on TV. It became a yearly tradition to watch Kobayashi win.
July 4, 2007, was a day that changed Joey Chestnut’s life. And, it was a day that changed mine.
It was that day that I decided I needed to see Takeru Kobayashi compete, win, in person. Like many people who were casual observers of the sport, I knew Kobayashi, I knew “that Japanese guy who always won.” He was a champion. He was one of the greatest eaters of all time, if not the greatest. I needed to see him in person.
At the time though I had no idea how much that decision would change the course of my life.
Later in the year a friend and I drove to Chattanooga, Tennessee to watch Kobayashi compete in the Krystal Square Off, which was, at the time, the biggest hamburger eating contest in the world. When word got out that he was no longer competing, that a jaw injury was putting him at rest, we almost stayed home, but decided to go anyways. While I didn’t see Kobayashi, it was there that I first met Joey Chestnut. It was there that I first met Pat Bertoletti, my favorite Chicago eater. It was there where I got my first VIP pass. It was there that I really fell in love with the competition.
Still, though, I longed to see the great Kobayashi eat in person, I still longed to see him win. I itched for it. And I made a promise that I would be there, at Coney Island, the next Fourth of July.
I eventually did see Kobayashi win, two years later, at the 2009 Krystal Square Off, but I never saw him win at Nathan’s.
I had kept my promise and returned to Coney Island the next summer. And I returned, again, the year after that. And for those two years Joey Chestnut beat Kobayashi. And the next year, I was there too, but Kobayashi refused to sign a contract, backed out, and never returned to the table.
Meanwhile, I became addicted to the sport. I’d traveled as much as I could to see as many contests as I could. It was partly because of the eating itself, the contests are fascinating and give a girl like me, one with little interest in anything involving a ball (OK, jokes…), something to root for. It was partially because it was fun to photograph, fun to try to get those iconic pictures of men and women stuffing their face with pre-digested food and particles flying through the air.
But, mostly, it became about the people. The amazing people of competitive eating who all at once take eating a hot dog as seriously as an Olympic run but realize the humor in it all. People who are both competitors and friends. People who take a weird girl like me along for the ride with open arms.
And it became about those illusive moments. Those historic moments when something you never thought could happen does.
Last year it happened in the women’s contest.
Last year Miki Sudo trumped Sonya Thomas, who had won every year since the women’s division began, who was consistently the top female before that, 34 to 27.75.
Every year, though, without fail, Joey won for the men, always leaving speculation of who could possibly beat him. Would it be Pat Bertoletti? Would it be Eater X? Would Kobayashi ever return?
But, every year, for eight straight years, Joey Chestnut remained on top. Was he unbeatable too?
As much as I’ve joked that Joey Chestnut hates me (he chastised me for ever rooting for Kobayashi over him), I’ve respected his eating, his dedication, and enjoyed watching him continue his winning streak. For years, though, I had my eye on Matt Stonie as someone who could finally take the mustard yellow belt away.
I met Matt at the 2011 hot dog eating contest shortly after he joined Major League Eating. He tied for fifth that day, but it was a strong showing for a newcomer who wasn’t even old enough to drink. There was something in him.
I saw Matt compete live the next year in a wonton eating contest in Bangkok but, though I managed to see the hot dog eating contest online the next two years, didn’t see him compete live again until July 4, 2014. In that time, he climbed from a fifth place start to a second place finish.
I joked with Joey after the contest last year that while I was happy he won, I was secretly rooting for Stonie. He said he was OK with it, it was only Kobayashi he had the beef with. But you knew he had every intention of going for it, of winning, year after year, of continuing his legacy.
I almost didn’t go to New York this Fourth of July. I’d been too busy at work and didn’t want to plan anything. I had that nervousness I get about traveling when I haven’t traveled for a while. I didn’t have the money. And, I thought, I’ve seen the contest so many times, do I really need to go back?
But one thought kept running through my head: what if Matt Stonie wins? What if there’s an upset? What if someone does the impossible this year and I miss it?
I missed my chance to see Joey Chestnut take down Kobayashi for the first time, take back the championship title for America, I couldn’t risk missing someone else usurping the title.
And so, I booked my plane ticket.
I arrived at Coney Island bright and early and staked my claim in the media box (right there between Getty images and CNN…) and waited, patiently, through a slew of entertainment.
There were bunettes and bun boys, performances by Badlands Booker and bands and choruses. All creating the spectacle of Brooklyn that this contest brings each year.
And there was a touching tribute to Little Jimmy, a Coney Island fixture who played out Uncle Sam at every year’s contest, who passed away earlier this year. One last time they marched his hat through the crowd.
And then the contests began. First, the women’s.
I’m not going to lie: I felt a little pang of jealousy watching all those women take the stage and not being amongst them. Last year, standing on that stage was one of the greatest moments of my life. Despite the fact that I’m a terrible eater and that those exact ten minutes were painful, I wished I was back. As I watched Miki Sudo again take the lead, take the title, take the win, I started plotting how I could get back up there next year (a plan that, I suppose, will consist of actually training this time).
And then, the men took the stage.
Joey Chestnut and Matt Stonie took center and, after George Shea (perhaps the greatest emcee to ever live) counted down to start, began shoveling wet hot dogs and buns into their mouths. Both strong competitors they remained neck and neck, dog and dog, for the first few minutes, wildly containing the meat and sogged bun. But, slowly, Stonie started to get ahead. One dog. Two dog. Three dog. Not a huge lead, but a lead none the less. A lead that, after 5 or 6 minutes became harder and harder to catch up to.
The crowd was on the edge of their bright yellow thunder sticks in anticipation for what was about to happen.
Joey Chestnut knew he was being beat.
In the last minute, when Stonie was up by 2, 56 to 54, Chestnut was giving it all he had. His handfuls of hot dogs, his bites, his cheeks, were all getting bigger as he desperately tried to even it all up. I’d never seen him push that hard.
He was eating with all he had.
But, that day, July 4, 2015, was Matt Stonie’s day.
Finishing with 62 hot dogs and buns to Joey Chestnut’s 60, Matt Stonie did the impossible. He beat the unbeatable.
History was made on July 4, 2007 and history was made again on the same day eight years later.
No one knows what will happen next year. Joey Chestnut could come back and reclaim his victory. Matt Stonie could continue a voracious winning streak for years to come. Someone else, some rookie, some newcomer, might come out of nowhere and steal the title from them both.
But July 4 will always be a day of anticipation, a day where hot dogs are eaten, a day where history can be made.